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Is nuclear power the answer to global warming?


By Mike Hick (a member of the Cobourg Daily Star Community Editorial Board

A 'Viewpoint' article published in the Cobourg Daily Star, August 19, 2005

Just how realistic is global warming? When George Bush goes to the G8 Summit and makes a prepared statement that human activity is contributing to global warming you can be pretty sure that global warming has not been cooked up by a group of bearded, left wing environmentalists with peep toed sandals. The consequences of global warming are quite frightening. The signs are all around us. The three hottest years on record have all occurred since 1998. Hurricanes and stifling heat waves are more frequent. Arctic and Antarctic ice caps are slowly melting and eventually rising sea levels will flood low lying coastal areas such as Florida, Bangladesh and Holland. The melt waters from the Arctic ice cap could block the thermal conveyor taking warm water to Europe resulting in very extreme temperatures.

The main causes of global warming are the emissions of greenhouse gases from fossil fired power plants and motor vehicles. Knowing the causes and consequences of global warming you would think that environmentalists would embrace technical solutions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But no, many get paranoid when it is suggested that nuclear power is part of the solution. Yet nuclear power emits no heat trapping gases and indeed if the fossil power plants in North America were nuclear, greenhouse gas emissions would be about half of what they are now.

Anything that reduces the need to burn fossil fuels is to the good. Take your pick -- wind power, conservation or nuclear power.

Wind power is a part of the answer. But realistically it can play a very limited role. To replace the energy from the Darlington nuclear power plant with wind generation would require several thousand wind turbines. Where are you going to put them? Windy areas tend to be scenic areas so wind farms will be ugly blots on areas of outstanding natural beauty. And how much use would they be in a heat wave when there is no wind? At very best wind generation can only be a small part of the solution.

What about conservation? Most people say they support conservation, but in reality their support is soft. In practice the only thing that forces people to conserve energy is higher prices. Unfortunately people dislike high prices more than they like conservation and they punish politicians who use price as a conservation weapon. Mike Harris de-regulated the electricity production allowing short term spot prices to rise by a factor of ten and his party lost the election. But Energy Probe was supportive of the de-regulation precisely because of its conservation consequences. Instead we have a government that closes down our coal fired stations and then imports power from coal fired stations in the US at several times the price. Conservation is part of the solution but not a total solution.

What about nuclear power? Nuclear power is the only power source that can produce huge quantities of electrical power without generating greenhouse gases. Politicians are loath to promote it because of strident, irrational opposition. Nuclear power is economic -- plants are expensive to build but cheap to run. When the Darlington power plant was built (at a time when interest rates were astoundingly high) the interest on the capital was the major cause of the huge cost overrun. In spite of those cost overruns Darlington churns out power at about five cents a kilowatt-hour -- less than half the cost of wind power. Today, with the low cost of capital, nuclear would be an even better investment.

The real cause for public concern is safety. But how serious is the safety issue? The French have a very successful program, producing about three quarters of their electrical power from nuclear. However the layperson in Canada is apprehensive; they say "What about Chernobyl? Could it happen here?" Any thoughtful person is right to ask those questions -- Chernobyl was a terrible disaster. The problem with Chernobyl begins with the Russian reactor designs, which are inherently unsafe. The reaction is turned on by lowering graphite rods into the reactor chamber. So if the control gear for lowering the rods jambs or fails in some way you have big trouble. In the Canadian design heavy water is used to start the reaction. If there is a breakage in the heavy water system you lose the heavy water and the reaction shuts down. It is inherently fail-safe. Even in the almost impossible event of a partial melt down, huge reinforced concrete vacuum chambers suck up any debris. These systems are tested regularly.

The Chernobyl disaster was triggered by a foolhardy operator who disregarded the rules while carrying out tests on the main electrical systems. With nuclear power plants, when the plant is operating normally, operators have very little to do. Yet when a problem arises, they need to respond quickly and correctly to a situation for which they have no previous experience. Airline pilots are in the same situation. Like the airline industry, the solution adopted is to regularly train and certify the operators on simulators so that they know how to respond correctly to crisis situations.

Another risk cited by nuclear opponents is the question of transportation and storage of the spent fuel. However nuclear fuel transportation containers have been developed and crash tested by running a locomotive into them with zero spillage. I don't know of other containers that can withstand being rammed by a locomotive. By comparison, the transportation of bulk propane gas and chlorine on our railways is infinitely riskier, as anyone who experienced the Mississauga train disaster will testify. There are no unresolved technical problems in developing long term storage facilities deep in the impervious granite of the Canadian Shield.

If the regular operation of nuclear power was inherently dangerous, it would be reasonable to expect that nuclear power workers would be sicker and have lower life expectancy than the general public. Yet this is not the case. They have better health statistics than average.

Are there risks? Statistically yes, but the risks are small -- much smaller than those we already accept. More important, they are small compared to the impact on mortality rates from not dealing effectively with global warming, smog and power outages. We need to take a balanced view and accept nuclear power for what it is -- safe and economic.


Reproduced here with the kind permission of:
Mike Hick (the author), and
The Cobourg Daily Star (Northumberland Publishers)



This excellent article prompted me, in turn, to send a congratulatory Letter to the Editor. We need more people speaking out like this!


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http://www.rodmer.com/EFN/HickArticle.html -- Revised Oct 22, 2006
Copyright © 2005-2006 Merike Lugus and Rod Anderson
rod@rodmer.com